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Part 3: On Being Pop'd:
From my point of view, I could have cared less about all the hype surrounding Strickland. I knew that David Robinson was and always would be the true star of the Spurs. I was standing on the sideline just past half court away from the the gym's entrance. Robinson was talking to Johnny Moore on the end line furthest from me. I was turning my head toward them to get their photo. As I turned, Coach Popovich made direct eye contact with me. He was standing maybe 60 ~ 65 feet away at a slight angle on the opposite sideline.
Coach was standing erect with his arms folded across his chest. (Warning: if he is ever standing like that looking straight at you, look out! Something's coming at you.) His face, very literally, was flaming red. I intend absolutely no exaggeration with that.
Laser beams flashed from Pop's eyes. I was locked in his death grip. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, if Coach had raised his eyes toward the ceiling, I would have immediately been thrust into the rafters. Or, more likely, he could have mercilessly slammed me headfirst through a rim if he had moved his eyes to a backboard. Wayne, the Director of Media Services, suddenly appeared at his side. Without Pop taking his eyes away from mine, they got into an animated discussion. Whatever was being said obviously had everything to do with me.
My only prior experience that was anyway remotely similar to this was while I was on active duty in the Army. There were a couple of times I witnessed events were a soldier screwed up so badly, he had put the entire Company in danger. The Company commander lit into him and the offending soldier was summarily marched off to Battalion headquarters never to be seen or heard from again. I had no idea what I had done wrong to set Pop off, but I did know this wasn't likely to end well.
Finally, Wayne began slowly walking across the court toward me, looking down at the floor, shaking his head as if in disbelief. Pop had never taken his eyes off me the entire time. Wayne walked up blocking my view of Pop, freeing me from his death grip.
He said he couldn't believe what was happening. Even though I was hired by the Spurs specifically to photograph this practice and was completely trusted by the organization, Pop insisted that I leave the gym. After Pop's stare down, I sure wasn't going to argue. The smoke from the holes burned through my soul still filled my head. Wayne concluded with, "This feels especially awkward because this is your gym. But as you well know, in here the coaches have the final say. Sorry about that."
Double T!! I was ejected!
In life as in basketball, always expect the unexpected.
When I got back to the darkroom, I processed the film. I had taken somewhere around twelve, maybe fifteen frames of nothing consequential, but still very good behind the scenes shots of some relaxed player interaction. I think even one of them is of Strickland taking a shot.
This particular incident was never discussed again, but I went on to do more work for the Spurs through the season. It is pure speculation on my part, but to this day I am convinced the real reason that practice was so tightly guarded was because they laid down the law with Srickland and gave him an eight week military-stye boot camp compressed into about three hours; the fewer witnesses the better.
I have the greatest respect for Coach Popovich. In the military, he would have been exactly what we would hope to get as a commanding officer. I admire his intellectual ability, his dedication and his relentless demand for the best possible effort, all of which has lead to the continuing success of the Spurs through the years Pop has coached.
I am endlessly fascinated with Pop's evolution as a coach. But I will ALWAYS tread lightly on his lawn!
The PtR Recap:
Pop: "Hey you!! What the hell do you think you're doin'!? Get off my lawn!!!"
Me: "But sir, I was paid to cut your grass and trim your hedges."
Pop: "Doesn't matter!! What the hell are you still doin' here!? Get off my lawn!!! (Brief pause for added emphasis) NOW!!"
Now it's off to dig these photos out of storage. See you all later and thank you for reading this far.
Update: Success in retrieving photo files. Click here for next post.